Star Wars is a franchise that’s as much iconic as it is frequently criticized by fans. Audiences have a certain set of expectations every time they step into a theater, and that’s been true ever since the first sequel debuted back in 1980. Everyone wants something out of Star Wars, making it difficult for any director to please the masses while also constructing a new and innovative story within the confines of the saga. Simply put, balancing fan service and narrative structure is perhaps the tallest order for any director. In the case of J.J. Abrams, he proved yet again to be a steady hand for a franchise in flux.
The Force Awakens carries with it an almost staggering amount of fan service. It hits virtually every major story beat from A New Hope, as a Force-sensitive orphan on a desert planet stumbles upon a grizzled war veteran, with the goal of returning a droid with important information to its original owner. But where some could potentially see that as a lazy rehashing, others interpret it for what it is: a passing of the torch. Abrams quietly runs the train over the same tracks, with the clear intention of building up to a new story with a life of its own in the near future.
In order to establish a standalone saga, The Force Awakens had to prove it could honor its original story to earn its keep. We get a handful of moments that would make any fan stand up in their seat and applaud, set to a visual and emotional aesthetic pulled straight out of the original trilogy. Gone is the stilted, emotionless dialogue of the prequels, replaced by moments of genuine vigor and excitement. There’s a clear investment for you as an audience member, in a story with well-established stakes and relatable characters on both sides of the affair.
Part of what made the original Star Wars trilogy so great was the unshakable feeling that you were striking out on this adventure right alongside our heroes. We could all relate to Luke’s feeling of being stuck in a life he never chose. Or Han being asked to become the hero he never wanted to be. Or even Leia’s sacrificing of her own happiness to serve the greater good. Anyone who’s ever been asked to be a part of something bigger than themselves experienced those movies on a personal level, all set to a rollicking, joyous, and eminently relatable story. The Force Awakens returns us to this place of emotion and empathy, making us truly feel for our characters the second they’re introduced to us.
All this is without even mentioning the spectacular work of newcomers John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. As the young trio driving the new trilogy, they make up the backbone of the Star Wars saga as it stands today, putting a whole lot of pressure on some inexperienced shoulders. That inexperience never becomes an issue though; Boyega delivers a delightfully down-to-Earth performance that expertly balances both humor and gravitas. On the other side in the newly-established First Order, Driver dives headfirst into a frightening and entirely sympathetic villain, fully committing to his role as the franchise’s latest big bad.
For Ridley’s part, we see a female protagonist who would make Furiosa proud. At every point when a male in an action movie would typically jump in to save the day, she skips the middleman by straight up doing it herself. All those damsel-in-distress moments are replaced by instances of genuine agency, rounded out by her passing of the Bechdel Test with flying colors in the final moments of the film. Everywhere you look in The Force Awakens, are strong, independent women in positions of power and influence. All told, it’s a far cry from the 90 total seconds of non-Leia female dialogue the original trilogy featured.
We won’t dig too far into spoiler territory, but what we will say here is that The Force Awakens is worth every minute of your time. The familiarity you feel throughout is undeniable, acting as a necessity in order to drive our story into bigger and better things (although sometimes to the film’s detriment, you may find yourself unable to shake the feeling you’ve seen this all before). The combined result was that Star Wars finally felt fun again. Going back and watching the prequels feels like a chore even today, making you long for the days when both the characters and audience shared in the adventure together. The Force Awakens perfectly aligns these two parties once again, gifting fans with the sequel they’ve always wanted.
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